Favorites, Inspiration, psychology, Technology

Q&A on The Science of Happiness with Positive Psychologist, Sara Oliveri

Sara Oliveri is one of fewer than 250 people in the world to earn her Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology – the scientific study of optimal human functioning. The goal of positive psychologists is to discover and promote the conditions that allow individuals, relationships, and organizations to thrive.

Working as a coach, she uses this background to help clients ranging from top tier law firms to nationally ranked health clubs build productive and engaging work environments by tapping into hidden wealth of a positive work environment, appreciation, and stress management.

​On a more personal level, Sara and her work helping to bring out the best in people and organizations is so inspiring to me, especially ​as I learn how Positive Psychology​ can be incorporated into the my own field of user experience and product design​. ​I was so grateful she was able to take the time to ​share more about her background, her definition of happiness and the effect technology is having on our lives.

You are one of the few people in the field of positive psychology right now. What got you interested in the field? What do you see for the future of positive psychology?

I got interested in positive psychology because I believe in life. I want people to feel like their are living meaningful, fulfilling lives. I don’t want people to feel like their lives suck, or like their lives don’t matter.

In college, I thought that the way to do this might be through international development – greater access to education, basic necessities, and human rights. Although I still think that those things are infinitely important, I no longer believe that they are the keys to happiness. Happiness seems to be largely psychological. And it’s primarily psychological, and emotional wealth that I want to help people have access to. That is my mission.

For those who don’t know —probably most of us — what is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of human thriving. Basically, classical psychology does a really good job of studying and understanding human dysfunction and helping fix it so that people can be functional. However, as humans we are not satisfied to be simply functional, we want meaning, love, connection, success, fulfillment – positive psychology studies how to build THAT. We like to say that classical psychology gets people from a -5 to 0, and positive psychology gets people from 0 to + 5.

What is the best way companies or organizations can effectively use positive psychology to improve their businesses?

One of my favorite ways is to teach organizational leaders the science of optimism. Optimists tend to outperform pessimists in every realm of life (except the practice of law). And Optimism in the psychological sense is quite different from how we typically think of it. It is a thinking style, and communication style that can be deliberately practiced.

My other favorites are the science of appreciation and appreciative inquiry. Appreciation is what it sounds like. the primary reason that people quit their jobs, across industries and job levels, is because they don’t feel appreciated. Furthermore, what makes one person feel appreciated my not make their colleague feel appreciated. I teach people how to give more effective and consistent appreciation.

Finally appreciative inquiry is a form of strategic planning. Instead of asking “what’s our problem and how do we fix it?” appreciative inquiry asks “what are we really good at? what gives life to our organization? or when were we really successful? AND how do we do those things better and more consistently?

How do you, Sara Oliveri, describe happiness?

In my TED talk, I define happiness as a feeling of wholeness and deep fulfillment with one’s life. Notice that my definition does not rely on positive emotion. It doesn’t require you to feel great all the time. It requires depth, and gratitude.

In your opinion, has the use technology made people more or less happy overall?

Honestly, I have no idea. I think it could go both ways. I think people have ALWAYS had ways of procrastinating. Before Facebook it was junk TV, before junk TV it was, what? junk magazines, before junk magazines maybe it was the radio? I’ll ask my grandma.

The only thing I see as a problem is when people are using technology as a barrier to LIVE human interaction. Like if you are hanging out with your friend, put your phone away. That’s probably bad for happiness, because it’s bad for connection. And happiness relies on human connection. We are social creatures. We need love.

You mentioned in your TED Talk, that happiness equals love. If this is true, do you believe it is possible to use technology to create an online experience that increases the user’s happiness?

Sure! I don’t see why not! I mean for instance, when I’m feeling really stressed or down sometimes I’ll go on YouTube and find funny clips to watch. I think it’s a great “positive intervention.”

Sometimes when I post something from my heart on facebook and people respond positively it makes me feel happy. But honestly, both of those things are fleeting. I haven’t had any experiences with technology that create LASTING happiness. That said, technology I think works best as a tool to facilitate real life experiences. Like I don’t think people can fall in love online (sorry) but I think people could potentially meet online then fall in love in real life. You can sign up for yoga, and workout classes online, and those things make you lastingly happier in real life.

For more from Sara, visit her on Facebook,  Twitter or visit her site, saraoliveri.com. 

For more information on Positive Psychology:  http://www.ippanetwork.org/

Filed under: Favorites, Inspiration, psychology, Technology


Drew Lepp is a UX/UI designer and founder of TimeKat, who aims to create online experiences that help make people happier and more productive. She lives in Washington, DC and enjoys inventing terrible dance moves, never cooking and taking videos of her forever kitten, Tiny Taco.